Whether its history, biography or historical fiction the
devastation of the American Civil War is widely read and known about but not
always and not about everyone who was there.Charles Frazier, author of best seller Cold Mountain, takes us back to
those awful days and introduces us to a teenage girl who lived surrounded by the
people, events and consequences of that awful war.
Her name is Varina Howell.With a financially reckless father she agrees to wed the much-older
widower Jefferson Davis, perhaps giving her stability and the ability to help
her parents. Davis is a wealthy Mississippi planter and slaveholder.Davis
pursue politics and Varina find herself in Washington where he husband is a key figure as a
Congressman and leading figure in several administrations.
Davis is eventually appointed president of the
Confederacy, putting Varina in the middle of things. For Civil War “buffs” the
details of the war as seen thru Varinas lifewill likely not reveal much that is new. It is her life, experiences and
thoughts that grab the reader. The
Confederacy falling, her marriage in tatters, her rescue of a black child being beaten on the street of Richmond, later raising that boy with her own children is only the beginning. Later she and her children escape
Richmond and travel south on their own, now fugitives with “bounties on their
heads, an entire nation in pursuit.” This is the story ofone woman’s tragic life and is epic in its
breadth and intimacy.
Because her twilight years were more interesting to Frazier,
he decided against using a traditional biographical approach to tell Davis’
story. This bothered me at first. I like and need chronology to keep track of
things in any story. I’ll let the author explain in his own words…
“I decided early on that I didn’t want the structure to be
based on the calendar,” he said. “I wanted it to be based on memory and
association. I wanted that back and forth, push and pull, jumping through
time.”To reveal her tale, Frazier drew on a real person from her past. During
the last year of the war, the Davis family took in a young mixed-race boy and
raised him with their children. That boy, known as Jimmy Limber, was taken away
when the family was captured by Union soldiers as they tried to flee to Cuba.
He never saw Varina Davis again. And his fate remains a mystery. For his novel, “Varina,” Frazier creates James Blake,
the adult version of that boy. Blake, who is a teacher, becomes the book’s
driving force as he tracks Davis down and pushes her to help him understand his
The book’s chapters alternate between the two adults and Davis’
life in New York and flashbacks that reveal her childhood, her marriage and
particularly the harrowing journey she and her children took as they fled
Richmond after the Confederacy collapsed. The narrative jumping around can be
frustrating at first but in the end the reader realizes that this is an
exploration of Varinas memories, her feeling of complicity and realizations of
the moral depravity of slavery and it consequences in her own life.
Having previously read and reviewed the story of the Grimke
sisters (The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kid) this book was an interesting counterpoint.Varina is a feminist in her own right. She is
conflicted. She madetough choices. And
most interestingly was and is still denigrated by those who wish her husbands
cause had prevailed….This is a most fascinating and revealing novel/ biography. I highly recommend it.....
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I am a not so recently retired social studies teacher and basketball coach. Still hunting birds though now with a camera instead of a gun.
Nature devotee, dog lover, birder, gardener and semi-retired all around outdoor adventure seeker.
Troutbirder II is my alter ego. He loves books and history and is an opponent of unnecessary, unplanned and unending "preemptive wars". A former moderate Republican, he spent the Bush II years gradually converting to "yellow dog" Democrat. He is now somewhat unhappy with the Democrats abandonment of unions and cozying up to Wall Street. This is promoting a gradual drift towards Democratic Socialism though he remains "flexible...